Wintery Wonderland

9th December, San Francisco central.

Ian writes:

Our intention yesterday had been to get a little sleep in the afternoon then stay up until late to adjust to normal US Pacific time (-8 GMT) but in the end we were just too tired and the little sleep at 4pm ended up being the beginning of a very loooooong sleep. Waking up at 4am was perhaps understandable, but after a couple of Nytol's each we managed to convince our bodies that we needed the extra sleep and eventually rose at 7:30am.

Shortly before leaving on our extended trip I had sold my camcorder - a Sony model that was under 6 months old. Why did I do this? Because I needed DV-in on my camcorder, which would let me edit video footage on the laptop and then send it back to the camcorder with no loss of quality. The old (I use that word loosely) camcorder couldn't do this, so I had cut my losses, sold it and and decided to buy one at the earliest opportunity on the trip. And here I was - at 9am walking up Market Street looking for the nearest electronics or camera store. I had nipped out to get one while Manda stayed back at the hotel. The plan was to buy it quick get back and charge it up then head on out again. However, I had been told that most stores don't open until 9:30 or 10:00am, and walking down Market Street at this time in the morning meant that the only people I saw were homeless and scary looking. I decided to wait until later to start spending money and headed back to the hotel empty-handed.

Manda and I took the complimentary shuttle bus to Union Square and immediately jumped on to a cable car headed north to Fisherman's Wharf. The guy running the car was a real character. He had this real rasping voice that suggested he had been shouting out his lines for years including this gem: "Make sure the hand in your pocket is your own or a loved one's. They may not be after your money - this is San Francisco after all!" (For those who do not know, San Francisco has a very large gay population .)

San Francisco cable car ride

The cable cars actually don't run from suspended cables - the cables are actually hidden under the streets, which makes the cars look more like trams, really.

We got off the cable car at the Powell Hyde cable car turnaround, then walked on down towards Fisherman's Wharf. Unlike yesterday's beautiful sunshine, today it was very overcast, miserable looking and cold. There were very few people around, and it definitely gave the area less of a vibe than it might otherwise have on a good day. I tried a couple of the camera shops for camcorder prices and got widely varying answers from $699 to $799 (on the same model of camera); the latter than dropped to $499 as I walked out of the door at his high prices. $499? He just dropped $300 like that? Even if it was a good price, I couldn't trust that the prices were the only things that got dropped in that shop.

Walking along past the Ripley's 'Believe It Or Not' Museum we spotted this commotion going on - people were shouting and running. It became clear that someone had stolen something - or done something else equally deserving of a slap - and was doing a runner. He went straight past me followed by a couple of fisherman still in their gloves and overalls, then next minute he was coming back again from the opposite direction. Still they shouted for people to help and I watched as everyone did nothing but watch, just as I was.

Then I had that moment, immediately after thinking what I'd feel like if someone had stolen my money and was let off Scot-free. In the same way that you say something you haven't really thought out, and hear the words tumbling out of your mouth, I found myself launching myself at this guy, rugby tackle-style. I grabbed his coat, latched on and spun him off balance, even then still thinking "would a well-placed trip be better than a solid nudge?". I then quickly let go and got myself some distance - mindful of the fact that while he looked like a chancer, a drunk, he might have something sharp and pointy to hand - whereupon he bounced against a wall and the other guys caught up with him. I waited to see what would happen next - perhaps a thank you for stopping the guy, but no such luck. The fisherman was too busy shouting at the runner telling him he was making a citizen's arrest and that he would be going to jail. Then he started punching him. At this point I noticed that some of the other people that were running after him were apparently running with him, and I wondeered how welcome my assistance would be with them. "They're just crazies, street people," offered one man standing nearby. "He was drunk when I saw him first thing this morning at 5am - he lives round here. They're all crazies ..." We did an about turn walked around the block and avoided the next two blocks, just in case we should run into these crazies again, then continued on to Pier 39.

We had heard that trips to Alcatraz normally required pre-booking. Maybe it was because of the weather, perhaps the time of year, but we strolled straight up to the ticket booth and ordered our tickets for the audio tour.

Moody San Francisco skyline

Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz is a lot smaller than I had imagined it would be, and a lot closer to the mainland too. It was difficult to imagine why no-one had ever successfully escaped from there, but then we hadn't got there yet, so perhaps it was a little presumptious of me.

If you ever get the chance to visit Alcatraz, the audio tour is a must. The tickets cost just $16 (only $3 more than the cost of normal entry including the ferry transfer) and the audio truly helps you to imagine what life might have been like in the maximum security prison. Wardens and inmates who were there provide the commentary over a background of sound effects of clanging doors, whistles, gunshots and more. They also do a night-time tour by torchlight, and I could imagine that this would magnify the spookiness of the experience even more. Perhaps we'll still have time?

After Alcatraz, we spent some time watching the many and very boisterous sealions that have made Pier 39 their home. It's really quite entertaining to watch them - while some of the platforms are covered with sedate and apparently happy sealions, others are a hotbed of male machismo in action.

The sealions of Pier 39

One sealion was making it his business swimming round all the platforms, barking at every other sealion and occassionally jumping up to pick a physical fight when the shouting got too boring for him.We left them to their bickering as the rain started to come down quite heavily - our cue to step inside for a bite to eat (next to the pigeons who also sought solace inside this place along the pier). Duly replenished, we walked another, oh I dunno, 10 feet, before ducking back indoors once more - this time to visit the aquarium. The last time we had been to an aquarium like this was in Sydney when it had also been rainy and windy. There is something strangely ironic to avoiding the wet weather by going indoors and then walking through tubes under the hundreds of gallons of water that make up the aquarium's attractions.

Starfish inside San Francisco aquarium

Afterwards I found myself another camera shop (and secured myself a JVC camcorder, some tapes, a spare battery and a bag all for around the equivalent of £440).We continued up towards a shopping complex at Ghirardelli Square - interesting looking buildings and a twee bunch of shops (and the entertainingly named Gaylord Indian Restaurant). We took some pictures for good measure then hopped back on a cable car back up the very steep hills to Lombard Street, where you'll find San Francisco's crookedest street. A short horizontal distance combined with a high vertical drop means a road that twistsseven or eight turns rapidly, with each 'straight' only about two car-lengths in total. Buses, mini-buses and stretched limos are completely out of bounds here.

The twisty turny Lombard Street

We ended our first full day in San Francisco with a nice hot coffee in Starbucks just down from the posh shops that surround Union Square (Louis Vuitton, Macy's, Saks and more). As I supped on my latte I watched the rain on the windows and the reflected neon lights in the shining streets. Sure, it had been cold that day, and sunshine would have been fantastic, but it had still been a good day.

Macy's at night

As I write this (10:30pm), I can hear the wind battering the rain into our windows. The weather channel is on and it looks like the whole of California is getting some really shitty weather. Meanwhile, the east coast of the US is also suffering from sudden cold spells and massive downpours - the presenter has it that 'the change is coming in'. Methinks sunshine will have to wait until we get to Fiji!